In February, 1971, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell experienced the little understood phenomenon sometimes called the “Overview Effect”. He describes being completely engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness. Without warning, he says, a feeing of bliss, timelessness, and connectedness began to overwhelm him. He describes becoming instantly and profoundly aware that each of his constituent atoms were connected to the fragile planet he saw in the window and to every other atom in the Universe. He described experiencing an intense awareness that Earth, with its humans, other animal species, and systems were all one synergistic whole. He says the feeling that rushed over him was a sense of interconnected euphoria. He was not the first—nor the last—to experience this strange “cosmic connection”.
Rusty Schweikart experienced it on March 6th 1969 during a spacewalk outside his Apollo 9 vehicle: “When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change…it comes through to you so powerfully that you’re the sensing element for Man.” Schweikart, similar to what Mitchell experienced, describes intuitively sensing that everything is profoundly connected.
Their experiences, along with dozens of other similar experiences described by other astronauts, intrigue scientists who study the brain. This “Overview Effect”, or acute awareness of all matter as synergistically connected, sounds somewhat similar to certain religious experiences described by Buddhist monks, for example. Where does it come from and why?
Andy Newberg, a neuroscientist/physician with a background in space medicine, is learning how to identify the markers of someone who has had the experience. “You can often tell when you’re with someone who has flown in space,” he says, “It’s palpable.” Andy scans brains for a living: praying nuns, transcendental mediators, and others in the act of focused states.
Newberg can pinpoint regions in subjects’ gray matter that correlate to these circumstances. Newberg is seriously looking at how to fly equipment that could study—in action—the brain functions of space travelers. If this Overview Effect is a real, physiological phenomenon—he wants to watch it happen.
Newberg’s first test subject will not be a paid astronaut, but rather a paying space tourist: Reda Andersen slated to fly with Rocketplane Kistler says, “It would be criminal NOT to study the first of us (space adventure travelers).”
After decades of study and contemplation about his experience, Ed Mitchell believes that the feeling of “oneness” with the Universe that he and others have experienced is a consequence of little understood quantum physics.
In a recent interview with writer Diana deRegnier of American Chronicle, Mitchell explains how the event changed his life and his entire perspective on the world and how each of us fits into the grand scale of the cosmos.
“Four hundred years ago. the philosopher Rene Descartes came to the conclusion that physicality, spirituality, mind and body belonged to different realms of reality that didn't interact. Now, that served the purpose to get the Inquisition off the backs of the intellectuals so they could disagree on material things with the church and without the fear of being burned at the stake. So that ended that, but it did cause, for four hundred years, science to consider consciousness and mind a subject for philosophy and religion and not a subject for science.
Now, one of the things that happened, in the 1940s, was the mathematician, physicist, Norbert Wiener (MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for the first time really defined information as the negative of entropy, and entropy as the idea of the universe is running down and wastes energy. But, Wiener defined information as the negative of entropy, and that's wonderful but it didn't go far enough.”
Mitchell says that in an attempt to fill in some of the missing gap, the 2008 revised edition of his book The Way of the Explorer explores the largely ignored science of human consciousness. Using what he calls the “dyadic model” he outlines the “two faces” of energy. “Instead of being two separate things, it's the energy as the basis of our existence in matter. And, it’s the basis of our knowing and information,” Mitchell explains.
“We had not had, in science, a definition of consciousness. The only definition of consciousness from the dictionary is that at its basic level it is awareness. Consciousness means to be aware, and then we have different levels of consciousness depending upon how complex the substance is. It has been demonstrated many times over in laboratories that basic awareness is demonstrable at the level of plants, at simple bacteria, at simple life forms.
This is done with Faraday cages. It's shown that this information at this deep level, at the quantum level, can transcend electromagnetic theory. And, now we're getting into quantum physics and we don´t want to go there at this point. But it's a very fundamental notion that awareness is at the very basis of things.”
Mitchell believes that perhaps both the theologians and scientists have missed the mark.
“All I can suggest to the mystic and the theologian is that our gods have been too small; they fill the universe. And to the scientist all I can say is that the gods do exist; they are the eternal, connected, and aware Self experienced by all intelligent beings.'
In response to DeRegnier questioning whether or not Mitchell believes in the idea of God, he responds that while he does not believe in the traditional “grandfather figure” version of God, “we do have great mystery about what is the origin of the universe, how it came to be. There's a great deal of question as to whether the big bang is the correct answer to the way the universe arose, and under what auspices and conditions. I don't think we have the full answers to that yet. Hopefully in due course we'll be able to find a much better way to describe all this.”
But while Mitchell does not claim to know how to perfectly interpret his experience, he is certain that it was a glimpse into a largely ignored reality: People, places and things are all more closely connected than they sometimes appear. He also mentions the need for better stewardship of our precious planet.
“The great thinker Buckminster Fuller, philosopher, now deceased but for a goodly portion of the twentieth century, pointed out at the beginning of our space exploration that we are the crew of ‘space ship earth’. But we 're a crew of mutiny and how can you run a space ship with a mutinous crew?”